Nashville SC travel north this weekend to take on arguably their biggest rivals in FC Cincinnati. For the latest on the Blue and Orange, we checked in with Pat Brennan, who covers the team for the Cincinnati Enquirer.
Ben Wright: Cincinnati are good all of a sudden! What happened?
Pat Brennan: A couple important things are happening: Pat Noonan is now getting the most out of players assembled for Jaap Stam’s 2021 team. Brandon Vazquez is having a career year. Luciano Acosta has had two great stints in MLS, but he’s also having a career year in some ways. Brenner Souza da Silva has started to contribute meaningfully in the last five or so weeks, too. GM Chris Albright had a great offseason via his roster additions, mostly for back-end roster spots and via the SuperDraft. And once the season ramped up, Albright addressed the defensive midfield positions with Junior Moreno arriving just in time for the season opener and Obinna Nwobodo touching down in late April. Those are the biggest factors for me.
BW: Brandon Vazquez and Lucho Acosta have formed a really dynamic partnership, and now Brenner is scoring goals and finally looks like he’s living up to the transfer fee. How have they individually improved, and what has made them so good together?
PB: Luciano Acosta has always had elite skill, but now his energy is focused and he’s playing within the strict confines of Noonan’s team concept. In the past, raw Luciano Acosta put up numbers and could thrill fans but he could also pull his own team’s shape apart. Now, I think Acosta has trust in the players around him. Brandon Vazquez is rewarding Acosta when they play with one another. So is Brenner, and so on. They’re all feeding off each other and playing very unselfishly.
Per Brenner himself, the club’s June 18 match at Philadelphia Union was his first of 2022 at 100% health (he dealt with back issues earlier in the year after missing preseason awaiting his green card). So, Brenner’s form is the result of good health. And even though Brenner hasn’t scored since July 3 at New England in a 2-2 draw, he’s dumping the ball off for assists and being very productive in other capacities.
Vazquez has been very good in every area you’d desire from a striker, but we’re really just seeing him continue his post-Jaap Stam form. Since Stam was fired late in the 2021 season, Vazquez has scored 13 goals in 28 matches – but he couldn’t get a start under Stam for whatever reason. Now, he’s coming of age before our eyes, and he’s worked with assistant coach and long-time MLS veteran Dom Kinnear on his off-ball movement and finishing to immediate results.
BW: In retrospect, Pat Noonan was a slam dunk of a hire as head coach. What has he done to turn Cincinnati around so quickly? What are his teams like stylistically?
PB: Noonan has been excellent, and the most important thing he’s done is overhaul the culture. Cliché? Yes, but it’s true.
The culture at the club’s suburban Cincinnati practice facility has gone from unpleasant at best to a place that people inside and outside the club enjoy showing up to each day. One of the core principles for Noonan is that every single person matters. Each player and each support staffer, and I don’t know if individuals had ever been empowered in that way previously.
Noonan also has a great approach for a rebuilding team that lacked very basic things like effort in the past: He wants hard-working, relentless players like Ray Gaddis, Alvas Powell, Nick Hagglund, Dom Badji, Obinna Nwobodo, etc. Not flashy players, but guys that will out-work and out-grit the opposition. With an unbalanced roster financially and in terms of where productivity is coming from, as well as some pieces that don’t really fit in Cincinnati anymore, determined effort has been a hallmark of the 2022 team and the letdowns in that area are very few.
Noonan likes his 3-5-2 formation for the most part, although there’s been plenty of tinkering because the club lacks depth and has had its share of injuries and, more recently, a costly suspension for Acosta. Regardless of the formation, I think the thing that makes it all work is the work rate of the players and that they very rarely lack for effort.
BW: For all their progress, it still seems like Cincy may have some issues defending a lead. Is that a fair assessment, and if so, what is contributing to that?
PB: It is a fair assessment. The numbers bear that out. Their 37 goals conceded is fifth-most in MLS. It’s always been a bit of a patchwork defense with odd parts – and that was before the club lost Ronald Matarrita to injury during the final window of Concacaf World Cup qualifying. It remains to be seen if he’ll be able to make a return later this season as he attempts to put together a case to rejoin the Costa Rica men’s national team in Qatar at the World Cup.
At some point in most matches, FCC usually finds itself defending desperately and just knocking it long to safety. Most people will point to center back as the area of glaring need for FCC, but there have been little defensive lapses from players of every position that have contributed to goals-against this year. I think the defensive structure is the clearest evidence that FC Cincinnati, which is a legitimate playoff contender in the East, is still rebuilding on-the-fly. They’ve corrected a lot in the attack and in the middle of the park, but whether or not they’re able to address defensive needs this transfer window could decide whether or not Cincinnati ultimately stays above the playoff cut line.
BW: Do you have a lineup prediction for Saturday?
PB: Roman Celentano (GK), Alvaro Barreal, Nick Hagglund, Ian Murphy, Ray Gaddis, Junior Moreno, Obinna Nwobodo, Allan Cruz, Yuya Kubo, Brenner Souza da Silva, Brandon Vazquez.